It was a moment of glory, a moment of euphoria, almost a moment of fantasy. Thierry himself could not have written it much better.
It almost seemed too good to be true that, on his return to the Emirates Stadium, having been gone five years, Thierry Henry had scored the winner with his fifth involvement after coming on as a substitute. Expectations had needed to be adjusted – surely it was too much to expect a match-winning return from the man who many would back as the greatest player this club has ever seen.
For the time during which he was being put through his paces pre-match, supporters enjoyed his presence, rather than worrying about him spoiling his legacy. 10 minutes into his debut from the bench, those doubts were blown clean out of the water. In fact, it turned out to be quite the opposite – so far, he’s only added to his fantastic Arsenal story.
It was truly a measure of the man and the footballer that the first and only chance he received (and in fact pretty much manufactured himself – more on that later) he took with all the aplomb and clinicality you would have expected of the Henry we saw tear the Premier League apart 8 years ago in that magnificent unbeaten season.
During the home encounter with Leeds from that campaign, Henry put them to the sword with a spectacular four-goal haul, and much was made of that during the pre-game nostalgia. That day the Frenchman destroyed his opponents with his speed – on Monday night, it was his movement and intelligence that did it. His body might not be what it was, but his brain is certainly still working at full capacity.
The knowledge of when to pull away from his marker and when to go into the space cannot be undervalued. He took a quick evaluation of the scenario, and made his move. When Alex Song spotted the pass and executed it to perfection, was there ever any doubt? The footballing gods may not have been kind to Arsenal in recent seasons, but at that moment the stars seemed to align, and the Gunners were not denied their moment.
The finish was classic Henry, and the goal just what Arsenal have been looking for without skipper Robin van Persie. Neither Park Ju-Young or Marouane Chamakh have demonstrated that talent of being able to peel away and find the space effectively, which has been a problem for Arsene Wenger’s side. Thierry Henry showed he has the credentials to play in that van Persie predatory role, and it should be expected that he’ll fill in there whenever needed, and possibly even come in alongside the Dutchman when more firepower is needed – a mouth-watering prospect.
That knack of being able to find the space in which to score is what has been missed in the (so-far rare, touch wood) absences of Robin van Persie for Arsenal this season. Not only does Henry have that ability, but he has the aura which simply demands the ball – if he gets into a good position, you know that if you find him he’ll bury it. Just like he did last night.
Some words, too, for the supporting cast. Mikel Arteta, captain for the evening, yet again displayed marvellous intelligence and experience, rarely misplacing a single pass. His sublime poise and passing was one of the highlights, once you look past the obvious one. Another continuously solid performer has been Laurent Koscielny, and the French centre-back was once again dominant and didn’t allow Leeds to trouble him.
Alongside him Sebastien Squillaci, much maligned, didn’t cause any (more) heart trauma, and the equally written off Marouane Chamakh and Andrey Arshavin showed tender signs of improvement to any willing to sit up and notice. Chamakh tried to play his own role, instead of attempting to emulate the goal-scoring of van Persie and should perhaps be praised for doing so – he played to his strengths, giving decent lay-offs and helping link-up play. The hunger for goal-scoring still doesn’t quite seem to be there but it’s up to him to find that. Arshavin showed a lot more application and while his final product was still lacking, he showed some tidy play on the ball and threatened Leeds many times.
Aaron Ramsey showed invention, drive and purpose, although still not quite the composure – he, like many Arsenal players, could and most likely will learn from Henry. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was often a worry for Leeds with his power and pace as well as raw talent, while Alex Song did his job well. Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel deputised well on each flank and did well to contain the ever-switching Andros Townsend.
The plaudits will of course, though, go to Thierry Henry. The King returning to his former haunt was always going to have some say on his comeback – luckily for those present and those watching at home, it was a big say. The magic of the FA Cup is still well and truly there. The same can be said for Henry himself.
When you look at our attacking performances at the end of last season and compare it to today’s game, there doesn’t seem to be much difference.
Which is concerning seeing as we all kind of put the laboured attacking performances down to tiredness back then. Hopefully the reason for the similar offensive problems that arose today (I shall detail them further down in the post) was it being pre-season, although I worry that’s too easy an excuse to make.
The main problem that was evident to me was that our play is still far, far too slow, which means we can’t open up defences. We seem to be content passing it patiently around the edge of the box, switching the play, then switching it back, waiting for gaps to appear in the opposition’s defence. This tells me we may see two scenarios a lot this season if things don’t change. Late goals - because the other team will have tired, meaning more gaps will be created – and stalemates; because some teams manage to stay defensively disciplined for the entire 90 minutes. Although another reason for that happening might be that we’re just not clicking. Still, I can see those two scenarios featuring a lot.
Unless we boost our creative options, and it looks like we’re going to do that with the addition of one Juan Manuel Mata from Valencia, who I’ve spoken about a little already recently. Well respected Spanish journalists Guillem Balague and Graham Hunter have both been reporting that the deal is close to finalisation for some €22 million – a hefty fee but it could well be worth it. During a conversation about the Spaniard, Hunter said this: “Let me assure you that if your club signed Mata you’d adore him. Gifted, tough, quick, hard working, lots of potential too” – which is encouraging to say the least.
During the journey up to the Emirates I discussed with my brother and cousin how we would line up if we signed Mata. We all agreed on a back line of Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Gibbs, a midfield pivot of Song and Wilshere; then we came to a crossroads. Up front of course was today’s goalscorer, Robin van Persie (hopefully we’ll see more of those goals from Arsenal) but the attacking trio behind him was the subject of some debate.
A few options crossed our minds. Playing Ramsey in the hole was a popular idea, although we couldn’t agree on who to play in the wings in that situation. I thought I’d probably have Nasri and Mata on the wings, with Arshavin and Walcott as impact substitutes, then I realised I hadn’t factored Gervinho into the equation. I guess we could have all three on the bench, as they all offer fairly different options which is good to have.
We also considered having Mata in the hole, and Nasri and Gervinho either side of him. That’s quite a potent attacking trio: easily interchangable, all quick in thought and movement and capable of splitting teams open on their day. And again, Arshavin and Walcott could be our impact substitutes. Or if one of the attacking players was struggling for form or fitness we could mix it up a bit and rotate, and not be much worse off for it. That’s a great advantage of having a strong squad.
I’ve somewhat strayed from the topic of the game, so I’ll return to it. Another thought I had during the game was about how flat the crowd seemed, even the Emirates Cup supporters that we usually draw in. And as I sat there, completely bemused by how, dare I say it, boring we were, I thought that it’s no wonder the crowd are so quiet at times considering how slow our play is. It seems like the dull, endless passing that leads nowhere just sucks the life out of our fans – I began to feel seriously lethargic at one point because it was actually quite mind-numbing.
There was one moment where we played three quick one touch passes and made ourselves some space, but nothing came of it. But that quick bright spark showed what advantage we could gain from the slow build up if we exploited it more: the sudden change of pace confuses the other team and it’s difficult for them to adjust straight away. Sadly we only really did it once, and when we looked to attempt it again nobody looked to be on the same wavelength, which is worrying as well as frustrating seeing as the season is just a few weeks away.
All in all, a thoroughly frustrating game. There were some slight positives, Gervinho looked good again (should have scored but we’ll let him off) and would have won a penalty if not for the idiocy of Kevin Friend (what an absolute… well my dad reads my blog so I’ll leave it to your imagination), Gibbs looked good, in fact the defence on the whole was fairly solid, at least for the period that we had our first choice defence. Concerns remains about what happens when we get a few injuries at the back though.
Most of our corners were shocking but we did well scoring from Rosicky’s free kick – he played pretty well, although he was good at the start of last season too, but didn’t seem to have it in him to keep going. Fingers crossed it’s different this year but I’ve not got my hopes up. On the whole we did well defending corners although it was slightly difficult to see quite how well we did each time because of our seats.
Wilshere’s early departure was a worry but I think he should be fine. It was exciting to see NYRB’s Juan Agudelo play too, for me at least – I chuckled at the uninformed people who questioned who he was when his name was announced, although I suppose I’m in a minority of Arsenal fans who knows much about him. He’s an exciting player and I was amazed at the things he can already do with a ball, which he showcased at half time. There’s certainly a bit of Henry about him, and with the great man taking him under his wing, he could become a super player.
Which finally brings me to Thierry. What a man. It was brilliant to see him again (sounds like he’s an old acquaintance, although I feel like I know him so well that he might as well be) and I got goosebumps when he came out for the first time. He showed, as Arsene said, that he still has that magic touch. Until tomorrow.
Apologies for the lateness of this post, but Blogger was broken recently so I’ve had to wait. I was planning on posting the video of the week on Thursday (as that is the designated day from now on) but yeah, I couldn’t. So here it is, a day late. A superb tribute to Thierry Henry.